Philip Guston began his career in the 1930s as a Social Realist, when it was the politically and artistically correct thing to be. In the early ’50s he turned to Abstract Expressionism — belatedly, but it was still fashionable enough to give him a modest reputation, appropriate to his modest, domesticated version of Abstract Expressionism. In the late ’60s he began to paint the unfashionable funky-gruesome figures which finally carried his reputation over the top, more for their weird silliness than their odd prettiness (evident in the “pink eye” and brushiness with which many were painted). Guston claimed he moved away from “purity” toward “narrative” — really back to the psychosocial narrative art he began with (however deeper his sense of the psychosocial). Some people deplored his abandonment of Abstract Expressionism — the new orthodoxy — but many others lionized him as a true avant-garde hero. Was it not the essence of avant-garde rebellion to rebel against what had become old avant-garde art?
Guston had the guts to change, to make it genuinely new. Refusing to toe the current art party line, his fresh maverick imagery — “fresh” in every sense of the word — made him an outcast, but also brought him notoriety. He had the credibility of those who break set: he showed that it was still possible to perform the defamiliarization miracle — restore the unfamiliarity and inexplicability that life and art have before they are legitimated and sanctioned by explication and explanation — that gave avant-garde art its credibility in the first place.
No longer set in Social Realist or Abstract Expressionist stone, Guston’s outrageous “unofficial” art was free to explore the existential mysteries of life — and of being an artist. He was a late bloomer when it came to Social Realism and Abstract Expressionism, but he seemed to have made a genuine beginning — to be the first on the scene, indeed, to create a scene — with his late breakthrough into a bizarrely childlike art. (It became the model for what was later called “bad painting.” Its offensive “madness” also influenced Georg Baselitz’s pandemonium paintings.)
But then making childlike art has always been a goal of avant-garde art. Indeed, it is only when the avant-garde artist finds the child in himself than he can be truly avant-garde. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child, that is, to make an art that was close to the origins of life and thus as original as life.
Thus Guston came to be praised for his flexibility, independence and originality. Here was an artist who had the courage of his convictions, no matter where they led. His absurd one-eyed head, derived from a comic strip invention by R. Crumb, was celebrated for its vulgar daring and pariah authenticity. Of course, a decade earlier Roy Lichtenstein had turned to the comic strip for inspiration — he too was once an Abstract Expressionist, even tamer than Guston.
Painter III, 1960
(If the aggressive gestures of Pollock and de Kooning set the standard, then Lichtenstein’s were timid and Guston’s sanctimonious. To use Nietzsche’s distinction, they worked from an economy of scarcity rather than abundance, in contrast to Pollock and de Kooning, who tended to overflow rather than abide by limitations. Or, to use Heracleitus’s distinction, they were dry rather than wet artists — inhibitionistic rather than exhibitionistic artists, as it were.)
But Crumb was an avant-garde counterculture comic strip artist, with a strong pornographic and morbid streak, while Lichtenstein’s models were safely bourgeois. Crumb was much more mad than anything in Mad Magazine, and Lichtenstein was much more respectable than anything in the Sunday comics. High art failed Lichtenstein and Guston — or is it they who failed it, who lacked the creativity to rise to its rarefied heights? — and so, like many other Pop and quasi-Pop artists, they turned to low, everyday art for their inspiration. It is the American artist’s fallback position — Abstract Expressionism, after all, was European in origin, whereas the comic strip was homegrown, native American art, speaking to the masses rather than the individual esthete, eager for a sublime experience (both suspiciously elite in a democracy, or what calls itself one).
“What Is Painting?” At THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART (MoMA)
More basically, the comic strip epitomizes the standard American attitude: art must appeal to everybody and deal with everyday issues. It may give the commonplace a twist, but it must remain commonplace enough to be comprehensible to common people. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is a glorified comic strip, but it is too fancy and intimidating for mass culture taste: keep it simple, artistically speaking, to make the simple point, and quit while you’re communicatively ahead.
From Colonial Realism to Social Realism American art has tried to be straightforward and clear-eyed — good citizen art, leveling everything in sight to make an obvious point. Banality is good in America, because it mutes our differences, thus keeping us from cutting each other’s throats (sometimes). Even Eakins and Homer are rooted in banality, the so-called common culture, muting their sharp perceptions to “reach” people, while Ryder, attempting to move beyond banality, banalized the beyond. He had a romantic inkling of the sublime, but he brought it down to earth, where it collapsed into a theatrical balloon. American art is bound by the reality principle, and Guston’s Abstract Expressionist venture into pleasure principle art, with its explicit sensuousness — the next best thing to explicit sex — was necessarily short-lived, so long as he wanted to remain an American-type artist.
If one traces Guston’s development, one sees a devolution of mastery, style, sophistication, refinement. It is as though he is deliberately abandoning them to get at something more fundamental. The primitivism of the cartoony images suggests an attempt to get back to first artistic principles and existential verities. But the devolution to the primitive — the regressive return to origins, as it were — is also an expression of self-doubt: Guston’s unhappy recognition of his limitations as a fine artist and mortal person. Perhaps one needs self-doubt to make a creative leap, but for Guston self-doubt was his last hope for a creative leap.
The primitive self that appears in the primitive cartoons is as damaged as their art: both are manically clumsy (and full of regrets). Guston’s breakthrough, then, was a breakdown (at the least, a midlife crisis): his loss of faith in fine art — whether in Social Realist or Abstract Expressionist form — symbolizes his loss of faith in himself. I want to suggest that its origin has to do with Guston’s unconscious guilt at repudiating his Jewish identity by changing his family name from “Goldstein” to “Guston.” It was a betrayal of his heritage, and while it allowed him to “pass,” it took its emotional toll, and eventually returned with a vengeance in his late work.
I am saying that Guston re-enacted his repudiation of Jewish tradition in his repudiation of traditional art. The collapse of high style evident in the late work re-enacts the collapse of his Jewishness. Not only did his denied Jewish self return in comic disguise in the late works, but it was the old suffering Jew. (Is Guston an American Chagall, however more labored his Jewish jokes are than Chagall’s? But where Chagall’s Jews didn’t lay down and take it — they flew into the sky, living in their dreams — Guston often shows himself laying down and taking it in the form of depression. Both came from Russia, but Chagall became French and Guston became French-Canadian and then American, which makes all the emotional as well as cultural difference.)
It is no accident that Guston admired the fables of Isaac Babel and Franz Kafka and became friends with Philip Roth, all profoundly Jewish writers — writers who evoked the Jewish sense of pathos and persecution. Ladder (1978) is Jacob’s Ladder, but where Jacob wrestled with the angels of God, Guston wrestles with the devils of guilt, and where Jacob was one of the founding fathers of Jewishness Guston is a dead-end failed Jew, the devastated victim of the perverse history reflected in his ruined body — all head and legs but no torso, that is, no substance. It includes the history of Jewish attempts at assimilation.
Making high modern fine art was an avenue of assimilation, as Harold Rosenberg suggested, and it is to Guston’s credit that he finally rejected the comforts of assimilation in favor of suffering, that is, the self-doubt of the modern Jew, caught between two cultures and belonging to neither, however emotionally he belongs to both. Guston’s Jewish self-doubt compounded his self-doubt as an artist, but finally gave him his own peculiar vision of the human condition.
Guston was a profoundly discontented artist — discontented with himself to the bitter end. It is depicted in The Line (1978), a deceptively simple image of artistic living death. Holding a piece of charcoal between two fingers — the same ones he uses to hold a cigarette in other works — the artist-God draws a simple black line on a desert-like red plane. (Guston’s last colors, already evident in some of the last Abstract Expressionist paintings, are the eschatological colors of blood and death. They are the same colors as the Nazi and anarchistic flags, suggesting an ironic identification with the nihilistic aggressor.)
The apocalyptic hand has no thumb, and seems to have lost half of two fingers — a last desperate attempt at artistic tumescence in the void. Determination and frustration are indistinguishable. It is the same hand, with a pointing finger, at once warning and witnessing, accusing and threatening — and also the finger of inspiration with which God is about to touch Adam in Michelangelo’s image of his creation, bringing him to life, and thus a symbol of creativity as well as conscience — that appears in Courtroom, Dawn, Flatlands and Scared Stiff (all 1970).
But now it is at its wit’s end. It is the hand of doom — the hand that wrote “catastrophe” on a wall in the biblical story. It suggests the “catastrophe” that informs Guston’s late paintings — the catastrophe of their execution and the emotional catastrophe that is their theme — and, more generally, the catastrophe of painting in an age of mechanical reproduction, where there is no social need for it, whatever the emotional need. Still clinging to the artist’s mythical divinity — his identification with God’s creativity — The Line represents the artist’s death throe: his final effort to make art, to hold on to his creative power. Whatever irony there is — in the calculated awkwardness of the handling as well as the fatalistic image — gets lost in the agony.
There are other reasons why Guston forfeited the Renaissance skill of his Social Realist works for the gestural estheticism of his Abstract Expressionism, and the abstract beauty of the latter for the ironic esthetics of his later surreal fables. (They are an odd, sometimes uncanny mix of the esthetic and anti-esthetic: facilely estheticizing color, crude often heavy line, and seemingly raw, “unschooled,” even styleless — certainly tasteless — comic strip imagery with a streak of Dadaist black humor.) He was not seriously innovative in either style. He was an adequate Social Realist, but not adequate as an Abstract Expressionist, which is why his work has been called Abstract Lyricism — Abstract Expressionism Lite, as it were. Indeed, many of his Abstract Expressionist paintings have an Impressionist quality, suggesting that he was reluctant to make the passage through ugliness, not to say the infernal emotional depths, which Clement Greenberg thought (correctly) was the only way to new painterly beauty. Guston may have found himself in emotional hell later in life, but he didn’t choose to explore it as Dante did, although his shift from purity to narrative was an acknowledgement of the profounder, “blacker” emotions that began to emerge in his Abstract Lyricism.
Guston was always a limited artist, and he compensated for his limitations by becoming a perfectionist, as the meticulous execution of the Social Realist and Abstract Expressionist works indicate. But his perfectionism confirmed his narrowness: his Abstract Expressionist paintings are as gesturally uptight — even when blackness makes them a little more expansive — and centered as his Social Realist paintings, suggesting that he never got beyond their traditionalism, however more obvious and particular his quasi-expressionistic gestures. They certainly lack the all-overness, polyphonic dexterity and automatist intensity and freedom of Pollock and de Kooning at their best.
Guston makes the best of his limitations in a different way in the late works: they also show a certain economy of means — a certain sketchy, improvised brevity of expression. If brevity is the soul of wit, then Guston uses brevity to achieve visual wit. It is a defensive wit — a defense against suffering. There is no doubt a social dimension to this suffering — Ancient Wall and Pit (both 1976), are holocaustal in import, as the piles of emaciated legs and shoes (or the heels of shoes) suggest — but it is also the suffering of the artist as The Studio, By the Window and Edge of Town (all 1969) suggest. (Painter’s Table and Painting, Smoking, Eating, both dating from 1973, hammer home the point, along with other works.)
Thus Guston identifies with the victim, and suggests that the artist is a victim of society. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan hood of his earlier socially concerned works — a concern kept alive in Aegean (1978), where the conflict in The Gladiators (1938) and Martial Memory (1941) is generalized into a war of all against all, a vicious fight to the death — becomes his own mask, suggesting the violence and anger hidden within him. It also signals his sense of being “faceless,” that is, without an artistic identity. Is he also hiding, in shame, a so-called “Jewish face?”
A Jew wandering between non-Jewish styles, Guston finally found an ironical home in aggressive facelessness. No identity becomes a safe identity in a threatening society. The face goes underground, as it were, also suggesting, however ironically, that the artist is Dostoyevsky’s underground man. Like the black and red colors, the Ku Klux Klan mask also suggests identification with the aggressor — the persecutor of blacks and Jews. Thus Guston is simultaneously victim and victimizer.
More directly to the artistic point, and even more ironically simplistic and schematic than the mask, is the Cyclopean eye that peers out of the head in numerous works. It is the wide eye of the wakeful artist, his inward-looking imaginative eye as well as his outward-looking witnessing eye. This doubly observant eye is apotheosized in Frame (1976) — God’s eye in the sky, as it were, as well as Guston’s own ironically sublime painting. It looks down on the world from a heaven of its own making. It is all-seeing but noncommittal.
A similar frame appears in Pit, mirroring the fire that cremated the bodies — and thinning it out, as though mimesis could not help being inadequate to it. Bloody bones and dirty shoes — durable traces — are all that is left of life: thus man’s cruelty to man, a recurrent theme of Guston’s late painting, which are sometimes gleefully sadistic in tone, as the violent contrasts as well as grim figures suggest. (An ironical reprise — parodic use? — of abstract sublime Color Field painting is implicit in many of his late paintings, as their broad flat planes of uniform color suggest.)
This Cyclopean head is clearly identified with the victim in Pit, where it rests passively on the ground in the pit. Indeed, the startling thing about the Cyclopean head is its masochistic passivity. It inertly rests on the ground, often looking downward, as though into the depths, as in Web (1975) as well as Pit.
Guston has become a studio recluse, as The Painter (1976) — with two eyes now — suggests, as though to return to the source of art, which is what The Source (also 1976) seems to be about. A sunny face radiates the light necessary for life and vision. (As though bipolar, Guston seems to have temporarily come out of the gloom.)
Taken together, these works suggest the conflict between life — represented by Cherries I and II (both 1976) (a sexual reference?) — and death, implicit in the body, including the artist’s own body, as Sleeping and Couple in Bed (both 1977), make clear. Guston never lets go of his paintbrushes even when he is having sex — and not just because the paintbrush is a standard phallic symbol — nor does he ever take off his shoes. He’s always ready for artistic action, and eager to leave artistic tracks in the dust of time. He may be sexually impotent, but he is not yet artistically impotent.
There is a grotesqueness in Guston’s late work, most evident in San Clemente and the “Phlebitis Series” (both 1975), in which big foot Richard Nixon, his ski nose turned into a penis and scrotum in one, becomes a diseased monster. Political hatred and social criticism are alive and well in these works, which suggest that Guston had a Grosz-like talent for the cartoon, but the point is that Nixon is as much of a mythical monster as the Cyclopean head and the Ku Klux Klan hooded artist. Both reduce the human figure to a quirky abstract object, with muted subjectivity and little if any power of movement and agency — virtually impotent, even when demonstrating potency by smoking a cigar, and, more nervously, too many cigarettes.
One may recall that Odysseus blinded the Cyclops to escape from his cave and then outwitted him by identifying himself as “No Man” in response to the Cyclops’s wish to know Odysseus’s name. The dumb Cyclops shouted this name to his Cyclops brethren, asking them to revenge him, but they thought he was crazy. What was he talking about, if “no man” blinded him? The aging Guston realized that he was a grotesque monster — to age is to become grotesque, and to be an artist is to be a monster (as Rimbaud suggested), and thus to be inherently grotesque. He tried, mightily, to become an enfant terrible in his old age. The question is whether he really succeeded. Was he blind, or did his one eye see something, or see in a way, nobody else did or could?
Monsters and comic strip characters never age — which is why comic strip characters are always monsters, and why they are unconsciously seductive (Nixon, immortalized as a monstrous comic strip character by Guston, is more attractive than he was in life) — and Guston’s monstrous comic strip artist seems ageless, all the more so because of its links with mythology. But it is too full of self-doubt and guilt at its own grotesque character to make a completely convincing, truly immortal art — an art that does not doubt itself, the kind of art that Piero della Francesca, whom Guston deeply admired, made — however much it afforded Guston emotional relief.
As Joseph Rishel tells us in his catalogue essay, reproductions of Piero’s Flagellation, Dürer’s Melencolia I, and de Chirico’s The Anguished Morning (1912) shared the same wall in Guston’s studio. (They are immortal works of art not because they are reproduced, but reproduced because they are immortal. They were not made to be reproduced, but use unreproducable art — art too exquisite, subtle and intelligent to mechanically reproduce — to articulate existential-emotional truth.)
But while their esthetics transcends the grotesque anguish they represent — artist’s anguish in the Dürer work, an allegory of the artist’s situation between earth and heaven, which he is ultimately unable to reach — Guston can only convey the anguish without the transcendence, which remains a wishful dream in a few scattered works. (Perhaps this is because it was Jewish anguish rather than only artistic anguish, and thus more ingrained and symbolic of universal anguish.) Guston was unable to bring the spiritual subtlety of his Abstract Expressionist paintings together with his grotesque cartoon figures in a dialectic of transcendence. Anguish and melancholy may be temporarily alleviated and leavened by luminosity, but they ultimately remained insurmountable for Guston.
Anguish distorts life until it becomes all but unrecognizable, meaningless and devitalized — which is the way Guston’s figure looks (however surreally and comically the suffering is conveyed), suggesting his sense of the futility of art and the artist’s efforts. Indeed, in his late works the aborted figure exists in a wasteland of its own as well as the world’s making.
Guston faced existential tragedy with humor and daring, but it did not make him or his art wise, however much it reveals broken humanity, including his own. He ends up with a parody of high art, as art that aspires to be popular, in whatever clever way, invariably does. Guston betrays high art, reflecting his betrayal of his Jewish self. One might say he produces a tragicomic Jewish art — the art of a bitter Jewish survivor, despite his attempt to destroy his Jewishness.
Both Jewishness and high art are enigmatic and haunting, for both claim a special relationship with the sacred which makes them sacred. But however much Guston looks like a suffering Jewish artist in the bloody mirror of his art, he never really embraced Jewishness or high art. This is why his late work looks bleak and barren, however amusing. The late works are haunted by a fear of being forgotten, but Guston’s sense of self-loss makes them memorable, if not immortal.